Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme
Explosively documenting the story of a group of underground hip-hop MCs & DJs from the early 1980s to the present day, 'Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme' is a film that explores the world of improvisational rap - the rarely recorded art form of rhyming spontaneously; off the top of the head. Made over the course of more than seven years, by a co-operative of filmmakers, b-boys, djs, and MCs know as The Center for Hip-Hop Education, 'Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme' takes the viewer on a journey through the previously unexamined dimensions of hip-hop as a spiritual and community based art form.
'Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme' experimental in its nature as an improvisational film: no showing of the program is ever the same experience, combining the best of independent art house cinema within the hip-hop mix tape format. The project features appearances by: Supernatural, Mos Def, Black Thought & ?uestlove of the Roots, Freestyle Fellowship, Lord Finesse, Cut Chemist, Craig G, Juice, Boots of the Coup, Medusa, Planet Asia, Sway, Crazy Legs, Jurasic-5, Wordsworth, Bobitto Garcia, and The Last Poets. 'Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme' offers us a context in which to view living art as a social critique in story and rhyme that is designed to bring about a cathartic transformation of frustration into beauty.
Following some of the best MC's ever to bless the mic, the film features legendary battles including those of the film's hero; Supernatural pitted against his arch nemesis Craig G providing the through line for the story. As these artists improvise poetry out of a mix of language, politics and culture that make up their lives, we discover revolutionary worlds where the English language is subverted and re-appropriated as a tool of economic and social empowerment.
'Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme' is a critically acclaimed film that is the first of its kind in many respects. It is the first film to explore the social and cultural background that led to the current development of the street poet, or MC. It provides an inside look into the framework of hip-hop culture, its rules, taboos and social impact. It gives a voice to popular Black/urban culture, which is known to be a profound influence on youth culture globally. 'Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme' is allso the first independent film to counter false notions of hip-hop's erroneous negative and overly aggressive image, therefore providing a unique look at a growing influence in modern American and world culture. Finally, 'Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme' is the first-time documentary directed by Kevin Fitzgerald, co-founder of The Center for Hip-Hop Education and a young and talented African-American filmmaker on the rise.
Holding great educational value for hip-hop enthusiasts as well as for those misinformed about hip-hop culture due to its intimate and honest portrayal of hard working independent artists, the film focuses on a group of intelligent, ambitious, and talented young men in pursuit of a dream, deconstructing the 'thug life' image that is often associated with the music.
A spiritual tale, 'Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme' offers a unique glimpse into a driving force in modern-day culture while maintaining the elements of quintessential coming-of-age cinema: an honest and thought provoking portrayal of the experiences surrounding the pursuit of the dreams of youth. The artists in 'Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme' provide insight into one of the least seen faces of present day hip-hop: improvisation and creativity.
Freestyling is the art of spontaneously rapping whatever comes to mind— whether political or personal—but always keeping what you say in perfect rhyming verse. Like the Griots or Jalies' of West Africa, the modern day MC (Master of Ceremonies or Mic Controller) is seen as sharing the same purpose: to communicate poetic story to a society hungry for truth, connecting more often than not through some divine or mystical power.
Though not known to the mainstream media, an MC freestyling over a DJ rocking doubles of a break is said by many to be the root of all hip-hop. Like spontaneous rough drafts, many known MCs freestyle before writing out their lyrics in the studio. Others refuse to record them, insisting that the poetry comes from their fleeting spontaneity. Like jazz solos, most freestyles exist only in the moment, creating a subculture where reputations are made through rhyme and you're often only as good as the last verse you spit.
The film begins by launching headfirst into the origins of the black verbal art form known as Rap. From Southern gospel preachers to Jamaican Toasters, and neighborhood park jams where MCs rhyme over DJs; to battles at the now famous Lyricist Lounge open mike in New York: 'Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme' builds an authentic quilt of the life, culture and history of hip-hop by capturing some of the most famous—as well as underground—rhyme sayers ever. By mixing known and unknown artists, the filmmakers shows what the media so often doesn't: that at its core hip hop is an expression of spirit, a fleeting escape into the divine found through live creativity in the present moment.
Most rap and hip-hop music played on radio or television is somewhat commercialized. Unlike this homogenized corporate rap gruel the priority of Freestyle is usually that of the highest artistic integrity and social consciousness.
Beneath the surface of commercialized rap and hip-hop lie the deeper roots of rhyme. In this underground realm are the true MC's who do what they do not for financial gain, but for spiritual fulfillment. Instead, these underground spoken-word-poets do what they do for the freedom of expression. With this freedom comes a release from tensions and relief from everyday problems. And unity discovered is the result or this empowering creativity.
Freestyle is something we see both young and old people doing in the film and those sessions are some of the most extremely passionate and engaging to experience. Most of the ciphers consist of artists coming together, almost anywhere, getting in the zone with other MCs to spit rhymes. At times the rhymes are just plan stupid and make everyone laugh, but other times they are really deep and thought provoking. Often these rhymes are one of a kind, never to be repeated again, only to be absorbed into our open hearts and minds.
Freestyle is exactly that, a free style of rhyming. There are no set boundaries and generally any new and innovative way to rhyme is looked upon as brilliant. Freestyle is all about a personal form of expression, and spontaneous storytelling one that reflects deeply upon the character of each artist.
In various cities, there are freestyle and open mic competitions. The participants often 'battle' for prizes and for the status of the best MC. Battling isn't physical; it is, for lack of better words, a conversation which goes back and forth between rappers to see who can concoct the best rhymes on the spot. Although, as we see with the films hero Supernatural prizes are usually given to the winner, but MC's generally do rhymes for recognition that they're the best and for the fun of competition.
Rather than well-lit rap stars with platinum records behind them, 'Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme' shows real people from diverse communities explaining the art form in their own words. The film's structure grows organically from their words and performances. These artists shape the form of the film with real ciphers and sessions, and destroy the played out gangster rap image by showing us a real humanity that has attracted both the world's respect and dollars.
In fact, early work-in-progress screenings of the project not only garnered awards but also attracted underground MCs, who would then cipher outside the venue, and ultimately wind up being included in later versions of the movie. The filmmaker/students collected such a diversity of original footage (Super16, Super8, Hi8, DV, Betacam) in addition to "sampling" stock footage spanning decades (from the 50's to now), that the film itself mirrors the freedom and aesthetic of a Freestyle. And in that sense it represents as a true hip-hop film.
Structured with insights from the Last Poet's esteemed Abioudun Oyweole and jazz historian Eluard Burt, the film connects the dots from the pain and love of yesterday's rap-poets to today's hip-hop movement. 'Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme' reveals freestyling as a stunningly emotional outlet, whether sharing energy in a "CYPHER"—a tight circle of rhymers throwing out ideas in stories, or trading disses in a "BATTLE"—where any two MCs can pit their wit and timing against one another. Like the griots of Africa or the wail of Coltrane's saxophone, today's hip-hop MCs all have a similar purpose: to share their experience with others hungry for truth, community and healing.
This film stands as ever evolving testament to the power of the word to create change. In the Internet World ruled by the impersonal, 'Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme' provides a breath a fresh air and an experimental vision by educating about the past, informing the future, and creating a better today.